Over the last two years, there has been a dramatic shift in how organisations are approaching new intranets on SharePoint. Instead of partnering with a development agency, they are looking for ready-made solutions that can be easily adapted and quickly deployed. Products such as Interchange, LiveTiles, Powell 365, Unily and Wizdom give a fast-track start. I recently lead a review of 26 of these (see our SharePoint in-a-box intranet products report), and the proposition is an appealing one, even for relatively large organizations.
Microsoft’s intranet roadmap
Microsoft is also making strides in this area. The user interface used to be terrible, but with the advent of a new look to SharePoint 2016 and office 365 it is getting a whole lot better. Indeed, anything sprinkled with the magical ‘modern’ prefix (Modern Team Sites, Modern Lists) is both simple and responsive across mobile to desktop devices.
Given many of the in-a-box products used the poor UI as their entry-point in the past, you might wonder if it would be simpler just to wait for Microsoft to finish its refurbishments.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has a track record of prioritizing new features rather than refining the old ones. Consider its long-overdue Yammer integration, the neglect of metadata and its current team collaboration mess with Teams, team sites and Groups. The response from some vendors is to try to tidy things up. Others take a more arms-length approach and provide a whole new application that ‘talks’ to SharePoint rather than working within it. Given nobody deploys an intranet without doing some kind of work, it is worth considering some ready-made options before in-house development.
Ready-made means a quicker start
The main advantage of buying a ready-made solution is that many vendors can do a basic installation in a day or two, and configure a workable intranet in a matter of weeks (for example, Attollo and Powell 365). This reduces risks, but more importantly, it gives much more time to focus on the other aspects of an intranet that we know matter most: great content, collaboration features, proper resourcing and a real focus on supporting adoption.
We’re also now seeing that some vendors are offering more targeted solutions, for example aimed at smaller companies, such as SP Intranet or PortalGo! .
The positives of in-a-box intranets
Across the products we saw, the emphasis tends to be on intranets with an internal communications focus. The major gains are:
- Management and publishing of news will be much closer to a dedicated communications CMS feature set, with things like targeting and multi-channel publishing (consider, for example Wizdom or Kira).
- An attractive user experience, including a responsive design that works on mobile devices (Unily and Bonzai come to mind).
- Better integration of social features (such as commenting on news) than Microsoft offer (Akumina Interchange or EasyShare are good examples).
- In some cases, enhanced governance for site creation and usage statistics (e.g. FLEX or Attini).
- Vendors take on much of the burden of updates to keep in step with Microsoft releases.
The negatives of in-a-box intranets
As you may expect with a ready-made approach, these products require some compromise in flexibility and costs:
- The basic styling is part of what you’re buying, so make sure you like it. Company branding and colours may be changed, but most products have a fundamental ‘look’ that is hard to change. The good news is that most interfaces are attractive.
- Fewer solutions cover the collaboration side of SharePoint. Your team sites are likely to remain largely untouched if you buy at the cheaper end.
- There are often on-going licence costs that wouldn’t be incurred if you had paid for the customisation. Buyers will need to consider carefully the total cost of ownership between a one-off build (with maintenance) and ongoing licensing commitment.
- Few products are strong on analytics or workflow, meaning further budget should be factored in for additional products such as Nintex and CardioLog.
- Many of these products are pretty new as branded offerings. This lack of maturity does mean a heightened risk of product issues, gaps in capability or issues with vendor stability.
- An in-a-box solution complicates the support model. If there is a problem, there are more steps in the resolution process, and risk of buck-passing between you, the vendor and Microsoft.
My overall impression is that the positives will outweigh the negatives in the great majority of cases, especially when lower risk and speed of deployment are factored in.
What to Expect From Microsoft
Microsoft still seems to have something of a blind spot when it comes to corporate intranets.
Much of what is offered still focuses on small group collaboration, such as Teams and Office 365 Groups, but falls short when it comes to publishing and web content management. Given the prevalence of SharePoint in the intranet space and the dominance of internal communications functions as intranet owners within organizations, this situation is mildly baffling. All the in-a-box products we looked at plug this gap pretty well.
The new team site news, for example, would not scale readily to be a corporate news publishing platform. In turn, the mobile experience for published content and site-wide navigation continues to fall short, and it is things like this that cause many SharePoint customers to turn to third parties to plug the gap.
A further reason is that not every company wishes to move to the cloud, and the on-premises feature set of SharePoint 2016 is falling behind. For example, social features for on-premises users, are unchanged since 2013. Some in-a-box products offer good solutions to on-premises social tools.
Some of the leading vendors we looked at are also anticipating the next wave by making it easier to run hybrid intranets. This allows companies to keep sensitive data on-premises, whilst exploiting the cost benefits of a cloud-based approach for things like published news and employee directories.
Finally, there’s a shift to products that are branded as ‘digital workplace‘. Typically these offer more apps or third party integrations, although the integrations may well require custom set-up from the vendor.
Harout Katerjian of Emgage commented that Office 365 seems to be breaking up elements that used to be cohesive in SharePoint. Some products are therefore looking to put them back together in a more coherent way.
Plenty of choice
My first look at this space a year ago covered just six readily-available products. There are now over 40 on the market. Such a range of options means that there is a good chance you will find a vendor that matches your location and requirements. This is a good thing as for all the benefits in-a-box products bring, you also sacrifice flexibility.
Let this serve as your reminder: it is more important than ever that you know your intranet needs first, and then find the product that closely matches your needs (and if you need help to figure this bit out, contact us!).
A version of this article originally appeared on CMSWire.